XXX. HBCU Super Enthusiasts

Dear HBCU Super Enthusiasts:

Don’t fret, I’m not writing this to come through stomping on the hallowed halls of Spelman, Morehouse, Hampton, Howard, Grambling State and/or Southern like Snoop Dogg did the buildings in the “New York, New York” video. I mean you no disrespect.

I come to you today hoping to paint a picture that counters a few rants I’ve come across about the superiority of the HBCU experience in recent weeks.

The common theme in these arguments has been that there’s something missing in the black experience at predominately white institutions (PWIs), and that something can be found at HBCUs. That something always seems to include “more blackness.” Now, I could come with the “HBCUs don’t prepare you for the real world, which isn’t black” rant, but I’ll save that for the speech I give at the 2027 Howard graduation.

columns

The Columns and Jesse Hall on the University of Missouri-Columbia campus.

Besides, I know better than to stand on a soapbox I might one day be forced to bend over and pick up. Again, I just want to provide perspective.

I attended the state of Missouri’s flagship institution, and wouldn’t trade my time there for anything. I know there are plenty of black Mizzou alums who think of Columbia, Mo. as nothing more than a place to relieve themselves on a roadtrip. Most of those people complained because they felt as though they were trapped in the middle of nowhere. But there are many black alums who cherish their time spent in mid-Missouri because of the black experience.

Looking back, the black culture at Mizzou often felt like it was its own little world within a PWI — especially when you consider the lifelong friendships that are made, the good, bad and ugly parties, black student involvment, learning to deal with the apathy,  the black mentors, grad students, staff and professors at your disposal, the fond memories made in our Black Culture Center or other black “landmarks” and the struggles to make sure black programming was on par with the rest of campus programming, among other things.

Part of me that wants to detail each of those points in a thorough fashion. But I don’t feel it is necessary. It doesn’t sound that much different from the arguments I hear from people who attend HBCUs, save the fact that there are more black people. Besides, I’m sure you can find a real friend who can tell you a similar story amid a similar argument. Just know that a fulfilling black experience is available at most PWIs — as is the other reason you go to school, an education — if you’re willing to make it for yourself. The same can be said about life.

We should just be thankful that people like Lloyd Gaines (a Lincoln University graduate), Charles Houston, Thurgood Marshall and many others fought for our right to be able to attend schools our ancestors were denied access to 100 years ago. Now, not only are we welcomed, but there are blacks who are running some of these same institutions and also making sure the quality of life for the black student there is on par.

No matter, there’s no shortage of capable and great black minds that come from all of these institutions — HBCU or PWI. I just think you just have to cherish your experience for what it was, whereever it was. And hopefully, you made the most of it, learned a few things (including common sense) and graduated.

Sincerely yours,

Damon

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50 responses to “XXX. HBCU Super Enthusiasts

  1. I’ve always went to PWIs… as a fresh high school graduate, I may have enjoyed HBCUs a little more. Matter of fact, I know I would have- there seemed like so much more to do.

    But now I”m a grown woman, with a full time job, and enough black friend to where I don’t need any additional ones in the classroom. I’m just trying to get my degree and leave. lol.

  2. I really don’t even understand why this debate gets so heated and involved. Who cares? Did the college you went to prepare you for your current career? Did you graduate in good standing? Where you able to find a job, better yet a fulfilling and/or well-paying job? Do you have memories and friends from college that will last you a lifetime? If you can answer yes to all of those questions then does it really matter what color the majority of the people at your school were? NOPE.

    If you can’t answer yes then that probably has something to do with you and not the school you went to.

    • I agree with you… I went out a year ago and this chick was talking to me and some others and asking about the colleges we went to. She assumed bc she went to an Ivy League school that she’d get picked for a job before me..

      I thought that was a pretty a&&hole thing to declare. I think that only rings true in some circumstances.. definitely not all.

      • Like I say in my comment, Ivy League educations can delude you if you’re not careful.

        The real of it is exactly what Tam says — are you prepared, did you graduate in good standing, etc…

        While I wouldn’t change my undergrad at all, my friends and I realized quickly that our friends at state school were doing a hell of a lot more sleeping than we were and once we started looking at graduation and grad school, realized nobody was going to care where we went to undergrad, just graduate school (once we had that degree).

    • “Did the college you went to prepare you for your current career? Did you graduate in good standing? Where you able to find a job, better yet a fulfilling and/or well-paying job? Do you have memories and friends from college that will last you a lifetime? If you can answer yes to all of those questions then does it really matter what color the majority of the people at your school were? NOPE.”

      @Tam: I agree completely. Very good points.

    • “If you can’t answer yes then that probably has something to do with you and not the school you went to.”

      @tam: That’s a part of what I’m trying to say. I understand that people have their preferences, and that’s fine. I understand that people take pride in where they went to school. That’s fine, too.

      But saying that your experience was blacker than mine is, well, foolish.

    • @Tam
      “If you can’t answer yes then that probably has something to do with you and not the school you went to.”

      …and then she spoke truth…

  3. I need to forward this to the next person that questions why I attended The University of Tennessee (PWI) rather than Tennessee State University (HBCU).

  4. Morning, y’all.

    @damon: Good topic.

    I attended a predominantly black public junior high and high school. I wanted to attend Spelman or Howard. These were my first and second choices. I applied to & was accepted to both but I ended up going to a predominantly white, Catholic university. While it was initially a culture shock, 😉 I eventually appreciated & even enjoyed it.

    Although this university was not my first choice, I do believe I was exactly where I was supposed to be at that time in my life. I agree with @Tam, as long as you rec’d a quality education in and out of the classroom, graduated in good standing, learned from college experiences, etc., it doesn’t matter the race of the majority of students in your classrooms.

  5. This is a great letter and truly reflects my feelings as well, Damon, you know, I was there with you experiencing that EXPERIENCE…lol. I applied to Clark Atlanta, University of Arkansas Pine Bluff and Xavier. I got accepted into all three and was on my way to attend Xavier when Mizzou stepped in and gave me a bigger and better scholarship. I thank God that happened because I had some of the best years of my life at this humongous PWI. I remember my father, being the extremely pro-black man that he is actually encouraging me to go to a PWI because it would be more reflective of how the real world actually is…go figure…

    • “…was on my way to attend Xavier when Mizzou stepped in and gave me a bigger and better scholarship.”

      @jlbd: This is definitely one of the reasons why I attended the PWI…I was awarded a larger academic scholarship because they were trying to recruit more minorities.

    • @jlbd:

      My Dad wanted me to go to Grambling State or Southern. Oddly enough, I just kinda looked at him crazy. I knew I wanted to go to Mizzou or Northwestern.

      And it was no knock on any HBCU. I had friends who did well at those schools. I just knew I wanted to go to one of those schools for a very specific reason – journalism.

      That’s why you go to school, right? For school, and hopefully because the school you’re going to is good at what you’re trying to learn….

  6. Yeah, I hate that argument. Its almost like arguing w/ Republicans because neither one speaks on facts nor concedes anything! Anyway, I wouldn’t trade my experience @ Mizzou for anything. I went to Tier 1 Research institution, with companies foaming at the mouth to give jobs too. I got to experience big-time Division I athletics and the exposure that come from that. Had access to state of the art classrooms, facilities and technology. And most of all, I got to meet a lot of great people across the color spectrum. Coming from Paseo, black people was all I knew so it was good experience for me to learn how to interact w/ people of other cultures and beliefs.

    (P.S. – we got first cracks @ facebook too! lol jk)

    • “black people was all I knew so it was good experience for me to learn how to interact w/ people of other cultures and beliefs.”

      @Oates: Aside from elementary school, this was the same for me so I can definitely relate.

    • you’re not lying about facebook! there’s only a few of us who can say “remember when facebook only had….”

      • Just the other day my friend and I were complaining about facebook and she said “Man, they need to go back to when it was exclusive…”

        And then when she reminded me we’ve been on facebook now for 4 years, I had to pause and reconsider life. LOL.

    • Getting first cracks at facebook about makes Mizzou a public Ivy, right? lol.

      • um….sorta. it does mean u didn’t have to convince friends to write into facebook on your behalf to get added, lol.

  7. Fabulous letter D! I always got asked why I never even applied to an HBCU back in the day. I just wonder why it’s such a big deal. I am proud of anyone that can go to college and obtain a degree….no matter what school it is. Just because I am black, doesn’t mean I have to attend an HBCU. I’m free to do as I please. Once again, great letter!

  8. this is good topic damon ’cause i ponder how different my life and perspective would be had i chosen to go to xavier (really just to follow my ex boyfriend) and not go to UF. UF def has its hangups and extreme color issues–the school allowed the KKK to rally on campus, and our news paper freely printed the n-word after kanye’s impromtu “george bush doesn’t like black people” stunt *sigh*–but even despite all of this, there’s nothing that compares to being a life-long gator.
    and it’s funny ’cause i can’t really take a school seriously if it doesn’t have a legit football/basketball team. i mean, what does one do on saturdays during the fall??

    • @nn: One thing I know that would be different is that you wouldn’t be sipping the Gatorade like you do. smh. lol.

      Seriously, I think having to deal with the KKK and the n-word in the paper adds to the experience, and teaches you how to deal with that stuff. We had plenty of similar incidents (though not that nuts) at Mizzou.

      • yea, the south give a whole ‘nutha meaning to “white privelege,” but knowing i lived through such events are memories that have contributed to my strength.
        and it’s funny ’bout gatorage ’cause it’s pretty much illegal to drink powerade, vitamin water, etc anywhere in gainesville, lol. you’re either a gator or gator bait (so lame, but so true).

  9. one thing i’ve never understood is when HBCU alumni point out how being surrounded with like-minded scholars, educated black people, etc, etc. is so much better than a PWI. as far as i’m concerned I know plenty of educated black ppl I surround myself with so I don’t know how that’s somehow different — well I guess the only difference is we all now have jobs, lol.

    • @nn

      Exactly! I swear there were a nice amount of respected black scholars at Mizzou that every student, white or black, had the opportunity to form a relationship with. And of course the black student body was um, educated…and held events, forums, social gatherings, etc. that welcomed all the educated black folks to mingle together and um, talk educated talk…*shrugs shoulders* Not to mention the president of the university my senior year was a black man…

    • “as far as i’m concerned I know plenty of educated black ppl ”

      Right. Just because I wasn’t in a classroom full of them doesn’t mean I wasn’t surrounded by them.

  10. Ok. TIME OUT DAMON. Seriously, I know I told you it was ok if you were living in my head, but maybe I lied. Or maybe I just want you to check with me first.

    (steps on soapbox)

    I will admit. Time spent at a prestigious university can cloud your vision. It can make you think you are the best at everything and that everyone is beneath you. Those of us with any good sense of the world and it’s people get over those delusions of grandeur pretty quickly and come to understand:
    1) Though the US may rank my education pretty highly (currently at #17, tied with Emory… thanks US News & World Report) the college or university you go to is what you make it. There are people who went to my university and didn’t get the education I got and others who got more.

    2) The experience a black student has at a PWI is an apple and the HBCU experience for a black student is an orange. You can’t compare them. What you can, and should, do, however, is acknowledge that there are individuals for whom one experience is better than the other AND that those individuals don’t always end up where they should.

    3) The best place to get prepared for the real world, unfortunately, is the real world. There is no university or college experience (undergrad) that truly prepares you for what you’re about to enter. Just a lot of speculation and hopefully a lot of time spent developing the network you’ll need to help you make it after the fact. The college experience is very unique.

    I’m done trying to defend my decision, as a black person, to go to a PWI to those who’ve never been to one, especially not the one I went to, just like I’m done expecting an HBCU grad to feel they need to justify their choice to me.

    And on a final note, I TRULY (and I mean no disrespect) feel bad for anyone who didn’t enjoy their time in undergrad. Those were absolutely some of the best years of my life and I know that I wouldn’t be saying that if I had gone to ANY other institute.

    (steps off soapbox)

    • “3) The best place to get prepared for the real world, unfortunately, is the real world. ”

      Co-sign all up and through this. Thing is, college in general is a cacoon. While it may mold your independence and whatnot, it doesn’t make you completely ready for the real world. The only way you can prove that is actually living and experience the real world. You can prepare for a test, but you’re not graded on the preparation, you’re graded on the actual test.

  11. OH MY WORD, ME TOO! so i got to vote for our 1st black student body president!!! (who would’ve known it was a sign for our current mr. president to be?). and his VP was asian-american! needless to say it was quite a full 4yrs.

  12. For a while, I had something no HBCU (and most PWIs) had….FACEBOOK. lol. I think people really feel obligated to justify their reasoning behind why they made their choices. This debate isnt a heated one for me. I dont owe you an explanation and if I choose to give you one, you will accept it and you will like it.

    I just dont see why people cannot see the pros of the other side of the fence. PWI bands sucks, HBCU football sucks, etc. We can go on and on too.

    Go Quakers!!

  13. ” I dont owe you an explanation and if I choose to give you one, you will accept it and you will like it. ”

    …’bout 90% sure we can be lifelong friends.

  14. I think to each his own and for those who get all up in arms because they feel Black students should WANT to go to an HBCU first, they’re being ridiculous. If EDUCATION is your main focus, you’ll go to the school best suited for the education you are looking to attain.

    When my daughter gets to high school and if she expresses an urge to attend college, I’m just going to encourage her to go where she will get the best education for her major…not where she’ll get what is deemed as the best social life for a Black/African American. If it happens to be an HBCU, good for her; if not, she most certainly won’t die and I’m sure my money will still be put to good use.

    • “If EDUCATION is your main focus, you’ll go to the school best suited for the education you are looking to attain.”

      It’s that simple….

  15. Good post, Damon. My ultimate stance on the PWI vs HBCU “war” is that there are too many misconceptions going around on both sides. One side say you don’t get the true Black experience (or “not Black enough” *shudder*) while the other says you don’t know “true diversity”. Both are wholly untrue. I went to a PWI and best believe I wasn’t locked out the Black experience. Know why? Because it’s NOT LIMITED TO COLLEGE. And though I’ve never been to an HBCU, I can understand their frustration when someone says they’re not experiencing real diversity. Diversity is a HUGE spectrum of colors, shades, culturs, sub-cultures, etc.

    Bottom line, you can’t stand all the way over there and tell me what I’m doing over here. Everyone’s experience is different and assumptions/generalizations are not hot.

  16. Well, I’ll be the outsider on this one, only slightly though. I wanted to go to an HBCU. I grew up in a largely black community (my STL peeps can back me up that Jennings is lax in the Caucasian persuasion). I went to a black church and even was in a black Girl Scout troop. I wanted to stick with what I knew. I was accepted into Howard, Hampton … and Mizzou. I was grateful to be accepted to Mizzou, but Howard called and I was ready to go. But my mother put a nail in that coffin, saying she didn’t want me to be so far away from home. So, I had to go to Mizzou.

    I don’t regret going. I never would have met Damon or four of my best friends. I probably wouldn’t have gotten the education that I received at the No. 1 journalism school in the country. But sometimes I wonder what might have been.

  17. Very well said Damon. While I didn’t have the ultra-active campus life that many HBCU alumni claim to have had, that is okay with me because I chose my college based on the program I was studying. Not the campus life. This very thing came up in conversation recently (I was the only non-HBCU person) and I found it hard to get them to understand my decision to go to a PWI. So, next time this comes up (and it will come up), I’ll refer to this letter!

  18. As a proud Howard alum, I don’t want to argue the superiority of HBCU’s “Black experience”, but I want to make sure people understand that there is a difference.
    I also attended UCLA, and went to PWI, my entire life pre-Howard.

    Every year, Howard ranks amongst the top 10% for International Students. It’s diversity is by far more vast than that I’ve experienced post graduation and pre-graduation. People hail from Nigeria to Poland to Jamaica at Howard. The “Black experience” you get at Howard is really an international experience.

    Furthermore, when I was at PWIs in high school, junior high, I noticed that the Blacks hung together based strictly around the fact that we were Black. All the Blacks were friends with each other, because we felt a common kindred spirit with one another.

    At an HBCU, because the majority of your peers are of African descent (but not necessarily Black Americans), you choose your peers and associates based on mutual interests. You don’t feel an automatic kinship with someone bc they are black; but if you both skateboard, or you both like shopping, you find a more grounded reason to be friends.

    It’s not superior, it’s different. And I don’t regret turning down Columbia and Harvard at all. 🙂

    • I will say that I think one advantage to attending an HBCU is that there are priviledges that come along with being the majority that in the everyday world, black folks don’t experience, but can and do at an HBCU.

    • “At an HBCU, because the majority of your peers are of African descent (but not necessarily Black Americans), you choose your peers and associates based on mutual interests.”

      @crystal: You choose your friends, period. You don’t just choose to be around people you have nothing in common with because you feel obligated to do so… Right?

      I think that goes whether or not you’re at an HBCU or an PWI. If I had “friends” forced on me because we were the only black people at my school, I can only imagine how those friendships would have turned out…

      • @Damon

        I didn’t know if I wanted to address that or not, so I didn’t.

        But I do want to add that while the majority of black people in my incoming freshman class were friendly our first year, seemingly just because we were black, by sophomore year, we had found who we liked and who we didn’t like and definitely by the time we graduated you didn’t see people being friends because they felt they had to. Additionally, I think that “parting of the sea” so to speak is experienced at all colleges regardless of “classifcation” everyone is friendly until they are able to weed out the people they aren’t interested in.

        Now, associating is something different and many of us did associate with each other becasue we felt obligated to, but that’s something I think may be more because we went to a smaller private school than because we were at a PWI. I came into significant contact with at least 85 – 90% of the black students in my class on a regular basis. I don’t think the same would be said of my black friends at larger state institutions.

        • @asmith: You’re about right… We had somewhere between 1,500 to 2,000 black people (students, grad students, staff and faculty) roaming around campus while I was there.

          You weren’t coming into contact with and befriending all of those people …

          But I can see how it could be different at a smaller, private institution.

      • Maybe I should have been more clear, Damon. You don’t befriend EVERYONE that is Black simply bc they are Black. But many people, not all, at PWIs, choose their friends from the Black pool of people. Of course you’re not going to hang out with a clashing personality just bc they’re Black; but you will use that as a starting point. The starting point is Howard is a Running Club meeting.

        I have many friends, including my sister who say they can’t name a single White friend they had at PWI. All of their friends were Black (and usually Black Americans).

        I’m not knocking the PWI experience; remember I had it! I loved UCLA’s resources! But Howard is where my heart is. I would have been fine anywhere, I’m sure. The experience at Howard is unique, as is yours. 🙂

        • “I have many friends, including my sister who say they can’t name a single White friend they had at PWI.”

          @crystal: I think that’s on those people. I have plenty of non-blacks from college that I consider friends… and most of my black friends from undergrad do as well. You choose to hang around who you choose to hang around.

          And you’re right, I think all of the experiences are unique. More over, like I said in the letter, they’re what you make of them… more so than anything else.

          Thanks for commenting and adding your perspective.

          • This is correct. The accountability always lies with the individual. Although I attended Howard, I have friends of all backgrounds, some who I met at HU, and others I met through work, and through spending time in the nation’s capital. It is completely up to the person.

            What I got from Howard that I couldn’t have gotten at a PWI, or even at other HBCUs, was the opportunity to really explore what it meant to be a person of African descent, without justifying it to anyone. We were all doing the same. I didn’t always feel the need to be reactionary to what the majority or Whites were doing. I was happy to be Black; not happy to NOT be White. Some of the most militant people I’ve ever met were Black students at Ivy Leagues; probably because they always felt the need to be defensive.

            At Howard, it was like being around family, although it was largely a family you’d never known before. Again, I’m speaking about Howard, not all HBCUs.

  19. For clarification, I used “Running Club” as an example of a social activity where you meet someone. I should have added chess club, mock trial team audition (Howard’s Mock Trial Team is #2 in the country )…

  20. wow I have never had this conversation with anyone who went to an HBCU…all I can say is, I wish somebody WOULD question where I went to college and why I chose a “PWI”, and try to equate that to my “Black”ness or the quality of the “Black” experience I had in college…seriously??? How do conversations like this even start? Geez, when will black folks ever stop trying to define what being black is and then trying to “one-up” each other.

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